The English country house style, oddly enough crystalized by an American decorator, is as likely to show up in Atlanta and London proper as in the Cotswold countryside. You may be aware of the look without having named it: an upholstered sofa mounded with pillows, a traditional rug, fabric-shaded table lamps, paintings on the walls, a profusion of flowers.
The fire is lit or looks as if it has just gone out. There is one formal piece—a French fauteuil or a Regency chest of drawers, perhaps, which is undoubtedly a family heirloom. The curtains are beginning to fade, a bit of bullion fringe was chewed by a dog long gone (there are always dogs). Something modern or, if the house is late Victorian, an Asian inflection may be found in the mix.
Minimalist, it is not. That’s part of its charm, of course; it allows for a bit of eccentricity and clutter. It might be described as pretty. Now a classic decorating approach, the English country house style is based on the layered interiors of old manor houses in the English countryside—it’s the original “shabby chic.” As an American style, it’s often attributed to Nancy Lancaster (1897–1994), the decorator and garden designer born into a wealthy Virginia family who purchased the firm Colefax & Fowler in the 1940s. Partnering with John Fowler, Lancaster brought the look to her own homes and those of her clients.
Lancaster felt that informality creates the possibility of relaxation. A room should not be too perfect, otherwise it “becomes a museum and lifeless.” She valued understatement. She mixed periods and styles, used antiques, and included “a touch of nostalgia.” Lancaster is still much-quoted: One nugget is “put an ugly thing in a room to enhance the beauty of the good things.”
Although english manor houses and mansions have more than a 500-year history, the 20th-century interior style is based mostly on Georgian through early-Victorian period ideals. Thus the range of influences from which to choose is wide indeed, from classical Palladian symmetry to Victorian Gothic romanticism. Whatever the precedent set by the style of the house, these rooms should look as if they’ve been taken for granted by generations of family. The concept is easy for Americans to adopt. Surround an important piece with comfortable upholstered furniture. Add cheery chintz and soft pillows. Bring in potted plants and flowers from the garden. Drink cold gin or hot tea.
The English are unafraid of color. Their rooms are often pastel or floral, but strong colors are used as well: grass green and teal, crimson, burgundy red and dark hunter green, deep blues, and gold. Pattern is embraced, with different designs used on wallpaper, rugs, and upholstery in the same room.
Someday we’ll take a longer look at English kitchens, but for now here’s a bit of easygoing advice: the English kitchen is not a trophy room. Once used by servants, now more likely by family, the kitchen is unpretentious. Look for open shelves, an enameled AGA stove, a table at center for meal prep and informal dining … less self-conscious than American Country, the English country kitchen is utilitarian but has the soft edges of age.
The garden plan is tied to the house and is based on symmetry and balance. Views from windows inside are carefully considered. A formal landscape plan finds a counterpoint in lush displays of heirloom roses, dahlias, lavendar, delphiniums, and peonies.
Americans are less likely than the Brits to embrace wear and tear, but we should try it. Buy good furniture, vintage or new, and then allow it to age. Treasure your things and reuse them, pass them down. Nancy Lancaster looked forward to new fabrics becoming faded by the sun.
• Livable, comfortable, layered, and imperfect are words used for this approach patterned after old houses where stuff accumulated over generations. Tone down the formality. Embrace signs of age and wear.
• Fresh colors make up a timeless palette of springtime pastels—pink to apricot, teal and duck-blue, daffodil, and almost any kind of green. But saturated red, blue, and gold (and gold leaf) are in evidence, too, especially in the dining room and den.
• Pattern is everywhere, mixed and layered as if over time. Floral chintz mingles with stripes, plaids, ticking, and even paisley. Rugs, too, are often patterned. A limited palette and an understanding of scale makes it work.
• Genteel clutter is the result when colorful rooms also boast bookcases filled to overflowing, framed art hung on the walls, and collectibles on display. Favored objects include porcelain and china, photographs, plants and flowers, and travel souvenirs.
English country house style pairs formal arrangements with comfort and wear; it respects history and tradition yet is practical about modern updates; it is exuberant, colorful, and pretty. The look may be adapted for almost any era.
English Country House Visits
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Acclaimed American decorators today practice English country house style, but if yours is an old house, you may prefer taking inspiration from the rather eccentric originals. In the United Kingdom, probably hundreds of country estates are open to visitors; see nationaltrust.org.uk and english-heritage.org.uk to start. Some Trust-property favorites:
SCOTNEY CASTLE, Kent. Classic English country-house interiors in a moated castle on a wooded estate; history goes back to 1137, but significantly the property was in the Hussey family from 1778 until 1970.
IGHTHAM MOTE, Kent. This 14th- century medieval moated manor house is rich with the history of many owners; one family, the Selbys, were here for nearly 300 years. The last owner, who saved the house, was an American who decorated two rooms in 1950s New England Colonial style.
SISSINGHURST, Kent. Spanning the centuries since the Tudor era, the property is famous for gardens designed by Vita Sackville-West, who with Harold Nicolson owned the property from the 1930s until the 1960s.
BATEMAN’S, East Sussex. This 17th-century Jacobean rustic farmhouse was the home of Rudyard Kipling from 1902 until his death in 1936.
TYNTESFIELD, North Somerset. Built over a Regency house, it’s a Gothic Revival confection created after 1844: the ultimate Victorian country house.
MANY MORE RECOMMENDATIONS at oldhouseonline.com/english-country-books